It hit me, as I strolled through Charleston’s gas-lit and cobblestoned French Quarter, that everything I loved about this unapologetically historic city was something I love about Philly as well: contained streets, colorful rowhomes, horse-drawn carriages bearing infatuated tourists, and the sense that for all its designer boutiques and craft cocktail bars, the city still hums with its own heritage.
Nevertheless, as I wandered beneath the breezy palm trees and past the pastel-hued antebellum mansions that line Battery Park along the Ashley River, I could feel the Philly frump sliding, like a heavy weight, off my shoulders. Charleston is, of course, ever so slightly more hospitable than Philadelphia, something I noticed the moment a doorman said hello (is there anything more drool-worthy than a proper Southern drawl?) and helped me roll my suitcase into the lobby of the Planters Inn. And it was there that I fell down the well—the oft-mythologized elegance of 19th-century Low Country was irresistible. At this downtown Victorian-styled hotel, the rooms and suites brim with Southern opulence: embroidered drapes, a marble bath, a Charleston-style four-poster bed that only the promise of Southern food and shopping could have pulled me from.
Luckily, neither is far from the Planters’ front door. Just across Market Street is the Charleston City Market, a corridor of 285 vendors selling jewelry, clothes, food, and the famous woven sweetgrass baskets you’ll want to make room for in your suitcase. I headed a few blocks west to King Street, a palmetto-flanked stretch of shopping that boasts just about every label in the KOP mall, plus a few local standouts. Gentlemen should drop in at M. Dumas & Sons for preppy duds, and ladies must visit Willy Jay’s for spunky sundresses. Lunch at Fish, the sunny King Street spot where chef Nico Romo, the youngest-ever Master Chef of France, capitalizes on Charleston’s rich supply of fresh seafood.
Like a good history-loving Philadelphian, I toured a couple of the oldest residences in town. The Aiken-Rhett House, an 1800s urban plantation, has been masterfully preserved as a living relic of a bygone era. You can visit the old slave quarters, see Governor William Aiken’s bathroom, and peek into the carriage house. The tour is both a sobering reminder of the South’s dark slave history and a monument to the best of gracious living.
Heritage and natural beauty are perhaps most palpable about 20 minutes outside downtown, at the completely car-rental-worthy Middleton Place. The 65-acre plantation, which has remained in Middleton family hands since 1741, boasts the country’s oldest landscaped garden, a fantastically grand checkerboard of paved walkways and Southern flora, including the enormous Middleton Oak, beautifully draped with Spanish moss. You half expect Alice to come barreling through a hedge, Cheshire Cat in tow. She won’t, of course, but if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of the resident peacocks.
The beauty of heading back to Planters Inn at the end of the day, as I discovered, is the promise of dinner at the Peninsula Grill. White tablecloths, ultra-attentive servers, pristine cuts of meat and a low-lit dining room made it easy to channel my inner Southern belle, though you might find yourself taking leave of your manners the moment you taste the seven-layer coconut cake.
But you must head to the hotel’s courtyard for an after-dinner aperitif. Because out there, you’ll experience one of Charleston’s most memorable, distinctive and decidedly un-Philly traits: the deliriously warm magnolia-perfumed air. Take an extra-deep breath for the road.
Also Check Out:
- The intensely savory meat dishes at The Macintosh are some of the most belly-pleasing in town. The deckle (google it) is particularly rich.
- The seasonal-and-local Fig is all the chatter in Charleston’s food scene. Be sure to try the cocktails here.
- This spring marks the 66th Annual Festival of Houses and Gardens, during which Charleston’s most notable private homes open for public tours. It’s a chance for open-house vultures to gawk at museum-style mansions and manicured gardens of the most enviable variety.
- For 20 years, King Street’s Worthwhile has stocked the fancy soaps, designer handbags and precious jewelry that make it possible to justify just a little extra spending.